George M. Abouna
An Architect of Organ Transplantation
By Prof. Talaat I. Farag
Prof. Abouna at his home in Pennsylvania (*All photos are from alqosh.net)
It is not often that one comes across a man of such passion, integrity, intelligence, and humanism as Dr. George M. Abouna, the global pioneer of organ transplantation. In his long and celebrated career, he has treated thousands of patients, given hope to many who thought their life journeys were close to an end, and left his mark across the world. An innovator, scientist, and kind physician, Dr. Abouna’s name has become synonymous with discoveries in organ transplantation.
For this reason, we are delighted to present Dr. Abouna as the Megastar of this issue of the Ambassadors Online Magazine. Despite his long and accomplished career, there just a few accounts of his experiences and his fame remains limited to the scientific and national/ethnic community from which he comes. Nevertheless, today the history of his life is being written and acknowledged. The Delaware County News Network in Pennsylvania ran a profile of Dr. Abouna in November 2012. The article written by Joe O’Loughlin presented a retrospective look at the accomplished pioneer who has avoided the limelight much of his life and has overcome numerous obstacles along the way. The author depicts Dr. Abouna as a humble, congenial, down-to-earth, and cheerful person who speaks with the weight of history and in nuggets of wisdom from a long life journey with numerous twists and turns.
Humble Yet Ambitious Beginnings
The journey that took Dr. Abouna from his hometown of Elkosh in Northern Iraq where he was born in 1933 to suburban Pennsylvania is a circuitous adventurous one.
Abouna comes from an old and proud community of Middle Eastern Christians, the Chaldeans, who trace their history back to early Christianity as some of the earliest to adopt the faith. They are also trace their lineage back to the ancient Assyrian civilization which was one of the most substantial and successful in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Syria).
He tells O’Loughlin that he had always dreamed of being a physician. And while the Iraqi government at the time in the early 1950s supported bright students with full scholarships to study abroad, Dr. Abouna’s funding was to study engineering rather than his passion of medicine. He eventually completed joint degrees in mechanical and electric engineering from Durham University. This might seem at first to be a distraction from his lifetime objective of being a doctor, but it ended up in the long-term to be a blessing.
His determination to seek a degree in medicine would not subside and he persuaded the dean of the Durham medical faculty to give him a shot at studying to be a doctor. To do so, he worked four jobs to cover the tuition expenses. He eventually graduated with a medical degree in 1961.
Prof. Abouna posing with the Abouna Liver Support Apparatus
While most doctors become inundated with work and spend the first few years of their postgraduate life adjusting to their new lifestyles, Dr. Abouna began breaking new ground almost immediately. Just seven years after graduation, his creativity and spirited innovation drove him to combine his unlikely areas of expertise—engineering and medicine. In 1968 he developed what became known as the Abouna Liver Support Apparatus—a device not unlike a kidney dialysis machine that connects to the arteries and veins of the liver and cleanses the organ. The device became an instrumental part of treatment of liver coma and Dr. Abouna had already left his mark at an early stage in his illustrious career.
Dr. Abouna didn’t stop there. He proceeded to adapt and advance his device, allowing it to prolong the viability of the liver ahead of transplantation. His engineering skills had become a critical part of medical advancement and Dr. Abouna was on the cutting edge of what would later become an area of research and instruction called biomedical engineering. His innovative approach to treatment drew world attention and he was courted by many centers and medical colleges. He went from the University of Colorado to the University of Virginia to the Medical College of Georgia. While in Atlanta, Dr. Abouna was asked to treat a friend of then Governor (and later President) Jimmy Carter. By this point Dr. Abouna had specialized in organ transplantation and the success rate for such operations was steadily improving.
In 1973, he was invited to head up the transplantation unit at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary which he accepted and while there performed the first living donor kidney transplant in the United Kingdom. During the Edinburgh years, Dr. Abouna also performed the first renal transplant surgery for a pediatric patient. With his family relocating to the United States again as his children pursued their education, Dr. Abouna eventually moved back to North America, taking jobs in Calgary, Alberta before moving to the Middle East a couple of years later to head up numerous transplant programs throughout the region.
Prof. Abouna with the late Pope John Paul II
The Global Doctor
Always the globetrotter, Dr. Abouna led a transplantation renaissance throughout the Middle East. Courted for his expertise, leadership, technical capabilities, and compassion, Dr. Abouna was invited to both set up transplantation services and perform operations in his home country of Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Syria, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Morocco, and Libya. In an attempt to create a community of specialists together across the region, he set up the Middle East Society for Organ Transplantation. During these years, Dr. Abouna received many honors, awards, and accolades.
While in the Gulf, Dr. Abouna performed hundreds of successful operations and was sought by royals and commoners alike to treat their serious conditions. While in Kuwait, he operated on the late Dr. Ahmed S. Teebi in 1980 in a successful kidney transplant.
In his academic career, and when he wasn’t establishing services and operating on patients, Dr. Abouna was contributing to the academic literature and sharing his findings with the scientific community. In his long career he published more than 130 articles in some of the top medical journals as well as authored and edited several books. He also is on the editorial boards of several medical journals.
Having worked throughout the Middle East, Abouna once again returned to the United States, this time settling in Pennsylvania where he continued to practice and during which time he performed the first successful pancreatic transplant in Pennsylvania. However, ever resisting stability in one place or another, Dr. Abouna maintained his scientific relations with the Middle East where he continued to travel, particularly to Bahrain and Kuwait, for consultations and to train local doctors on organ transplantation.
Prof. Abouna with the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah
Documenting His Life
In 2012, a website dedicated to Elkosh township in Iraq conducted an extended interview with Dr. Abouna which was incredibly insightful. The interviewer Nasha’at Daman asks him about his early life in his home town and his upbringing. With a sense of nostalgia, Dr. Abouna recounts his childhood there and explains his strong connections to his roots, his land, his ethnicity, and his religious community. Being a Chaldean is an instrumental part of Dr. Abouna’s identity but has not stood in the way of his appreciation of people of all faiths and backgrounds. Having spent much of his life traveling from one continent to the next, helping one community after the other, Dr. Abouna developed both an appreciation for and commitment to helping others irrespective of who they are. Everyone who meets him understands that he is truly an embodiment of the ideal physician that is expressed in the Hippocratic Oath.
The life and journey of Dr. Abouna is now immortalized in a wonderful book by Samir Johna who authored George M. Abouna: The History of a Pioneer in Transplant Surgery (AuthorHouse) in 2004 and where he delivers a detailed description of his life story and experiences worldwide. Using interview material, archival information, and by following Dr. Abouna’s footsteps, he offers the single most detailed biography of the pioneer.
Today Dr. Abouna is still active as an educator, physician, and speaker. Most recently, he will be a speaker at the 14th Congress of the Middle East Society for Organ Transplant which will be held in Istanbul in September.
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